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James D. Murphy
James D. Murphy

The Red Team: A Simple But Effective Method to Improve Mission Planning

The May 1, 2011 mission to find Osama Bin Laden has become one of the most celebrated military mission planning successes in recent memory due to the utilization of a little-known and seldom-used practice called the Red Team.

The mission was a daring raid executed by the courageous members of the U.S. Navy SEAL DEVGRU, also known as SEAL Team Six, especially when considering the potentially disastrous political and diplomatic consequences that would have occurred had the mission failed. In spite of the dangers, the odds, and the loss of one of the two Blackhawk helicopters that delivered the SEALs to the target, the mission to get Bin Laden was an extraordinary mission planning success that continues to inspire awe. The Bin Laden mission was executed by some of the finest warriors that history has ever known. However, aside from skill in the profession of arms, it was the overall tactical planning process that went into the mission that provides an important lesson for planners in all fields - in military, business, or in everyday life.

The Overconfidence Bias

We fall in love with the plans we make. Mission planning is much like giving birth to a child. When the plan is complete, whether developed by an individual or a collaborative team, the planners can step back and congratulate themselves on the genius of the plan that they have created -- such overconfidence is one of many cognitive biases we humans fall prey to.

This is why the practice of utilizing a Red Team is necessary. A Red Team is a simple means to overcome the overconfidence bias and the theory of "groupthink," the need for groups to seek conformity and unanimity in planning and decision making. The mission planning effort that went into the Bin Laden mission was the detailed product of many different planners, but that alone was not enough to ensure success. The tactical planning process had to be subjected to a Red Team.

The Role of the Red Team

For the Bin Laden mission, military planners invited an outside group of experts who were previously unaware of the plan and had not taken part in the mission planning process to comprise what we call a Red Team. A Red Team examines a plan and offers frank criticism of the plan without bias. The Red Team's purpose is to expose flaws or weaknesses in the tactical planning process - to test the plan with dispassionate reason and respectfully offer detailed criticism. However, the planners must accept the criticism humbly, without commenting or defending the plan. It is vital that the planners involved are able to accept and incorporate this criticism, or the practice of utilizing a Red Team will be rendered moot.

Historical Examples of Mission Planning Using Red Teams

The Red Team is not a new concept. In 1962, faced with the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy utilized a form of the Red Team to great success. He had suffered a terrible and embarrassing debacle in the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion and Kennedy was not going to allow such an error in mission planning to happen again. He began by dividing his Executive Committee in half and tasked each of the two groups to argue for one of two primary options to deal with the threat. One group argued for a naval blockade and the other for an air strike. Kennedy then had the groups switch positions and critique the other group's proposal. The last step in Kennedy's tactical planning process was to ask his brother, Robert Kennedy, and one of his close counsels, Ted Sorenson, to act as a Red Team on each group's proposal. The result was one of the most masterfully played moves during the Cold War - a naval blockade that forced Soviet withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Cuba.

The Red Team has been utilized with great success in the U.S. military. During the Gulf War mission planning effort, planners employed this practice, asking Red Team members to defeat a proposed plan. Planners then took the weaknesses exposed by the Red Team and improved the tactical planning process, making plans tighter and nearly foolproof. The result was a successful war fought on foreign soil to expel invaders in just five weeks - a mission accomplished with minimal loss of life and destruction of property. Like the Bin Laden mission, the Gulf War met with success through the use of a tactical planning process that included Red Teams.

Eliminate the Fear of Personal Attacks When Using a Red Team

One might think that it takes courage to employ a Red Team. It is hard to expose your "baby" to such criticism, as we naturally view critiques as a personal attack. However, when performed correctly, a Red Team need not invoke fear of personal attack. The secret to successfully incorporating this practice into the mission planning process is to diffuse resistance to personal criticism before the Red Team critique takes place. Individuals must incorporate the idea that "it is not 'me' that is being assaulted by critics, it is 'us.'"

To further ameliorate the sense of offense and fear that the Red Team may create, this part of the tactical planning process should take a simple, disciplined and respectful structure. Invite the Red Team to sit down while someone from the mission planning team briefs the plan to the room. After the plan has been detailed, the Red Team should then have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions. After all questions have been asked, the Red Team should offer criticisms of the mission planning process in a round-robin fashion until all concerns have been voiced.

Offering and accepting criticism is much easier when it is communicated correctly. All members of the Red Team should begin their critical remarks with a statement such as, "Have you considered..." Furthermore, all responses to Red Team criticisms should be grateful, beginning with statements such as, "Thank you for your input." There should not be discussion or defense. The mission planning team will have a natural tendency to want to argue with the Red Team about their tactical planning process and will have to avoid the urge to defend the plan and learn to respond with gratitude.

Because the Red Team has no prior knowledge of the tactical planning process and also lacks knowledge of the considerations that were part of the mission planning effort, beginning each comment and criticism with the aforementioned "Have you considered..." statement is vital. This relieves the mission planning team of the need to respond and also relieves the Red Team from concern that a comment or criticism will not be valid. After pointing out the flaws and weaknesses in the tactical planning process, the Red Team should depart and the mission planning team should begin incorporating the newfound criticism to better the plan as a whole.

The Red Team utilized during the Bin Laden mission provided invaluable input as a critical component of the mission planning process. This practice can improve any plan, in any context and in any company. The best part is that utilizing the practice does not take much time, as a Red Team requires a minimum of only three or four members to discuss the tactical planning process. The meeting is also short, at approximately 30 - 60 minutes - and the results can make a world of difference.

James D. Murphy,
Founder and CEO of Afterburner, Inc.

This entry was published on Oct 27, 2011 / James D. Murphy. Posted in Project Management, Leadership & Management. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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Jijo posted on Thursday, August 24, 2017 12:50 AM
Great Read! I tend to get defensive when my 'baby' is critiqued but I feel the Red Team approach can actually make my projects better. Will definitely give it a try.
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